Exhibition Illustrates 16th- And 17th-Century Medicinal Plants

July 2–October 26, 2003

Stanford, CA, April 18, 2003—A small exhibition at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center at Stanford University provides a glimpse into European records of exotic plants and spices in the 16th and 17th centuries. Botanical illustrations, early books, and maps from Stanford and other Bay Area collections highlight medicinal plants and spices that prompted European voyages of discovery and the emergence of medical botany. The show is guest curated by Dr. Anna Spudich in collaboration with Dr. Joan Wrenn; both are Stanford-trained biologists. Entitled From Forreine Places All the Varietie of Herbes, the show opens July 2 and continues through October 26, 2003. Admission is free.

Culinary and curing plants have an important place in human history. Spices and medicinal plants were part of the early imports from Asia to Europe. In the 15th and 16th centuries, a well-stocked European medicine cabinet contained pills and potions made from cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper imported from Asia. Herbals, some of the first books printed in Europe, describe the medicinal properties of native and exotic species. In the last 100 years, centuries-old plant medicines have provided the starting point for drugs for biomedicine. Knowledge of the plant medicines and the plants themselves is vanishing as traditional societies embrace modern life.

Included in the show is a European herbal from the 16th century, The Historia Stirpium (1542) by Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), describing 515 plants with woodcut illustrations remarkable for their quality and accuracy ("positively delineated according to the features and likeness of the living plants"). Fuchs, professor of medicine and botany at the University of Tubingen from 1535 to 1566, undertook the work to provide accurate information for training physicians at the university in the drugs of the day. The 100 non-native species in The Historia Stirpium are a record of plants introduced to Europe in the 16th century.

John Gerard, Master of the Company of Barber-Surgeons during the reign of Elizabeth I and author of The Greate Herball (1597), affirms in the text that he has labored to include information "from forreine places all the varietie of herbes"—a quote that provides the exhibition title. The frontispiece of The Greate Herball shows Gerard solemnly posed holding a Virginia potato (the first picture of the potato, native to the Americas). Gerard's description of the Malabar Fig Tree of India may have been the model for John Milton's fig tree in Paradise Lost.

The remainder of the exhibition is devoted to the earliest study of the medicinal and other useful plants of India published in Europe, The Hortus Indicus Malabaricus of Hendrik Adriaan van Reede. This important botanical work was created by collaboration of Europeans and Indians from many walks of life. The 12 volumes published in Amsterdam between 1678 and1693 record the thriving indigenous medical tradition of Malabar in the 1600s. Volume 1 credits the Malabar physician Itty Achutan and three Brahmin physicians of the Ayurveda tradition for their contributions. The medical texts these physicians refer to in that text are now lost, so for many valuable plant medicines of south India the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus may be the only extant record.

The Cantor Arts Center presents a half-day conference on Saturday, October 25 concerning medicines derived from plants. Admission is free, with open seating in the James H. Clark Center Auditorium. For information, call 650-723-3469.

SEEDS OF CULTURE: The Lore of Spices and Medicinal Plants
Saturday, October 25, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
James H. Clark Center Auditorium
James H. Clark Center
318 Campus Drive
Stanford University

This half-day conference brings together speakers from the worlds of medicine, science, and cuisine to explore the flavorful history of botanicals and their contributions to health and well-being. Speakers will be Michael J. Balick (Institute of Economic Botany, New York Botanical Garden); Roberta Lee (The Continuum Center for Health and Healing, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York); Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; and Annamma Spudich, cell biologist and guest curator of From Forreine Places All the Varietie of Herbes.

The conference is supported in part by the Lynn Krywick Gibbons Gallery Exhibitions Fund, Department of Biochemistry, Stanford University School of Medicine and the Asian Religions and Cultures Initiative at Stanford.